Tending the Temple

High Maintenance

Last week a male friend from work called me a “high maintenance” woman.

(Yes, he lived to tell about it, but my revenge is to immortalize him as fodder for a blog. That’ll teach him!)

To which I replied, “Any woman worth keeping is worth maintaining.”

I was shocked those words came out of my mouth. Not sure where the girl with low self-esteem went, but her replacement has a quick wit and a healthy sense of her own value.

I have never wanted to be high-maintenance. I’ve always tried to be sweet and accommodating and understanding and compassionate. I’ve been a great listener, an encourager, and not usually demanding. Although there was a time when I’d smother a guy with advice (and clothing suggestions), I’ve learned in more recent years to keep my opinions to myself unless I’m asked (most of the time). I’ve diffused conflict with humor, and I’ve done my best to meet my own needs so thoroughly that I wouldn’t need to ask for help from a romantic partner. I rarely asked for much of anything, and if I felt neglected I stuffed those feelings and made a gratitude list about my partner, or nursed a silent list of resentments and sulked in self-pity.

That doesn’t sound high maintenance does it? (All the men I know are probably laughing right now. Yeah, I hear you.)

The girl with the low self esteem also believed that a woman worth keeping was worth maintaining. But her perception was distorted. When she plugged her experiences into the formula, the answer she got was that she must not be worth keeping, since no one seemed interested in maintaining.

That kind of thinking has a self-perpetuating momentum to it.

It never occurred to her that she hadn’t ever given them the chance, or that she had a habit of turning toward good-hearted guys who simply weren’t capable of maintaining.

People are not high maintenance. Relationships, especially those worth keeping, are.

They require open communication and honesty. They require courage – courage to be ourselves, and courage to allow the other people to be themselves, exactly as they are, right here, right now.

Relationships require time. Time is an investment, and some investments are inherently risky. Time creates attachment. Even though we each have 24 hours in a day, not everyone is able to invest the same quantity or quality of time in a relationship. That doesn’t make them “bad” people; it does, however, make a relationship with them a riskier investment.

Relationships require an emotional investment, too. Some of us (yours truly included) seem hard wired to make generous donations of emotional capital only to bankrupt ourselves with emotional charity. Abundant giving to a child or to a geriatric parent or grandparent or a sick family member is laudable. But if I’m over-giving to a grown adult who isn’t willing or able to give back, that’s not healthy, in spite of what our culture and maybe even our religious faith may have taught us.

Love by its very nature is unconditional, but healthy relationships are not. I think it’s ok to expect a return on investment in a relationship between equals. But as the old saying goes, you can’t get blood from a stone, especially if you don’t even tell the stone what you expect. You can’t go to the hardware store and expect to buy bread.

Which takes us back to having the courage to accept ourselves and our “partners” exactly as we are, even if an honest assessment means we aren’t really partners at all.

In hindsight I can see that believing myself to be “low maintenance” has lead me to settle for low maintenance relationships. Wanting more is often seen as “high maintenance” in a disposable culture that values ease and comfort over effort and endurance. But I do want more. I want effort and endurance. I want relationships worth keeping. I’m high maintenance and proud of it.

What I’ve learned from meditation and journaling about this whole “high maintenance” business is that maybe I’ve acted low maintenance because I didn’t have the time or emotional capital to invest in a relationship worth keeping.

That’s a difficult place to be – knowing your value, wanting the best, but not being able to afford it. I could mortgage myself. I could go into emotional debt, but I would have to work twice as hard to pay it off, if I even could pay it off. That leaves less time to invest in that “relationship worth keeping” later down the road, when the infatuation wears off.

There’s another choice. I could invest in myself. Every bit of time and emotion I focus on myself will earn interest, or so I’m told. My parents taught me to save up for the things I want. I saved for two years while my gorgeous bedroom set was on layaway, bringing home one piece at a time. I saved for almost a decade and worked overtime to be able to afford a two week trip to Ireland, and the down payment on my first house came from my savings. I know how to do this in “the real world,” so it’s just a matter of applying those skills to my “emotional world.”

I didn’t deprive myself during those years of saving; I was just more frugal. I can be frugal with my time and my emotions. I can learn to maintain myself, which is not the same thing as never asking for help and resigning myself to loneliness. Mr. Rogers said, “Look for the helpers,” and it’s as good advice for 39 years old as it is for 6. Supporting myself means asking appropriate people for appropriate support, not being a rugged individualist boot-strapping my way through two jobs, three kids, and single parenthood.

Education is another way we can invest in ourselves. When I was first separated I read a fantastic book about rebuilding after divorce, and one of the chapters was on “growing” relationships – that is, temporary situations that help both parties grow. It’s an investment of time and emotion, just as going to college is an investment. But we don’t expect to stay in college perpetually, do we? We expect to graduate with skills and confidence that will serve us going forward.

Most relationships are of this variety, whether we admit it or not. I have a double major in depression and emotional unavailability with a minor in codependency. I just got my master’s degree in detachment with love, and I’m hoping to earn my doctorate in acceptance before this life is through. Having kids is a bit like a practicum course, and some of my dating experiences have been like unpaid internships, most valuable for the experience they provided.

And that’s where I’ll end the metaphor, because relationships aren’t like a job you qualify for with higher education, interview for with your best rehearsed answers, and use as a stepping stone to the next best paying gig. Relationships are a gift that you have to be ready to receive, and there is only one I’m guaranteed to have – a relationship with myself. And I can have a relationship with God, but only if I want it. I’m not entitled to anything else, no matter how hard I work. Everything else is a gift of grace, which I can hold only if I learn to let go of the things not meant for me and keep my hands and my heart open instead of clenched tightly in fear.

Being open requires daily maintenance. Worthwhile maintenance. The highest of maintenance.

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